Proverbs 31 as an Acrostic Poem by Sean Burt

A tumbled down, and hurt his Arm, against a bit of wood.
B said, 'My Boy, O! do not cry; it cannot do you good!'
—Edward Lear

Try to name a nonfantastical animal that starts with the letter U and you will understand the challenge of creating an acrostic poem. Acrostic poems draw attention to the first letter of each line, and in Prov 31:10-31, the first letter of each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet—v. 10 begins with aleph, v. 11 with bet, and so on through the 22 letters to v. 31, which begins with the final letter, tav. Although this poetic device makes Prov 31:10-31 stand out in the book of Proverbs, acrostics can be found in several other places in the Bible. Most appear in the Psalms (Ps 9, Ps 10, Ps 25, Ps 34, Ps 37, Ps 111, Ps 112, Ps 119, Ps 145), but prophetic literature (Nah 1) and Wisdom literature (Sir 51, Lam 1-4) also use acrostics.

The technical term for these poems is abecedarian, because they use the acrostic device only to make alphabets. Other acrostic poems do even more, spelling names or phrases. For example, the Babylonian Theodicy uses the initial letter of each stanza to spell out a sentence declaring the scribe's devotion to his king and god. Alternatively, Lewis Carroll closes Through the Looking Glass with a poem whose initial letters spell out Alice Pleasance Liddell, the name of the girl on whom his fictional Alice may be based.

The purposes of alphabetic acrostics vary by the poem, but some scholars have suggested that it was an aid for oral memorization. More likely, though, because they are so difficult to compose, acrostics were an ostentatious show of scribal technique, an ancient version of the antics of the French Oulipo group, who do things like write entire books without the letter E.

Ps 119 has drawn criticism in this regard: its meticulously composed acrostic structure, with 22 eight-line alphabetic stanzas, can be overwhelming. The eight lines of the first stanza begin with aleph, the next eight lines in the second stanza begin with bet, and so on, for 22 stanzas. That is not to say that the acrostic cannot be a device of great power. In the book of Lamentations, the first two chapters' acrostics build toward the extremely structured and overflowing threefold acrostic in chapter 3. Not coincidentally, that chapter is the part of Lamentations most filled with promise for a new future. However, Lamentations does not end on a note of hopeful expectation. Lam 4-5 gradually abandons the acrostic, and the book concludes with a deflated nonacrostic poem whose 22-lines are but a reminder of the hope suggested by Lam 3. The acrostic form echoes through Lamentations even in its absence.

In Prov 31:10-31, too, the acrostic form fits the purpose of the poem and the book. This poem paints a picture of a woman who embodies real, practical wisdom from A to Z, or from aleph to tav. Yet, as Carol Meyers points out, this poem does not in fact exhaust the scope of practical economic activity for ancient Israelite women. The acrostic form may therefore be helping to communicate something that the poem's content does not. Even further, the fact that Proverbs' only acrostic section shows strong links with major themes of the book (the preciousness of wisdom and the difficulty of obtaining it, the fear of the Lord) shows that the “strong woman” is not just some kind of afterthought but is an essential portrayal of wisdom.


Sean Burt, "Proverbs 31 as an Acrostic Poem", n.p. [cited 28 Mar 2017]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/related-articles/proverbs-31-as-an-acrostic-poem

Contributors

Sean Burt

Sean Burt
Assistant Professor, North Dakota State University

Sean Burt is an assistant professor in religious studies and English at North Dakota State University. His research interests include Persian-period Judaism, genre theory, and the Psalms. He is the author of The Courtier and the Governor: Transformations of Genre in the Nehemiah Memoir (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2014).

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Relating to or associated with people living in the territory of the northern kingdom of Israel during the divided monarchy, or more broadly describing the biblical descendants of Jacob.

The promise made by Yahweh to the ancestors in Genesis, including the promise of offspring, land, and blessing. Eventually the covenant becomes the essential part of this promise.

An accounting for evil in the world despite God's goodness.

A category of biblical literature that typically deals with the nature of God and the moral and practical aspects of human experience.

Prov 31:10-31

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10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
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Prov 31:10-31

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and he will have no lack of ... View more

Ps 9

God's Power and Justice
To the leader: according to Muth-labben. A Psalm of David.
1I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart;
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Ps 10

Prayer for Deliverance from Enemies
1Why, O Lord, do you stand far off?
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Ps 25

Prayer for Guidance and for Deliverance
Of David.
1To you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.2O my God, in you I trust;
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Ps 34

Praise for Deliverance from Trouble
Of David, when he feigned madness before Abimelech, so that he drove him out, and he went away.
1I will bless the Lord at al ... View more

Ps 37

Exhortation to Patience and Trust
Of David.
1Do not fret because of the wicked;
do not be envious of wrongdoers,2for they will soon fade like the grass,
and wit ... View more

Ps 111

Praise for God's Wonderful Works
1Praise the Lord!
I will give thanks to the Lord with my whole heart,
in the company of the upright, in the congregation.2Great ... View more

Ps 112

Blessings of the Righteous
1Praise the Lord!
Happy are those who fear the Lord,
who greatly delight in his commandments.2Their descendants will be mighty in the ... View more

Ps 119

The Glories of God's Law
1Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.2Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their ... View more

Ps 145

The Greatness and the Goodness of God
Praise. Of David.
1I will extol you, my God and King,
and bless your name forever and ever.2Every day I will bless you,
an ... View more

Nah 1

1An oracle concerning Nineveh. The book of the vision of Nahum of Elkosh.
The Consuming Wrath of God
2A jealous and avenging God is the Lord,
the Lord is avengi ... View more

Sir 51

PRAYER OF JESUS SON OF SIRACH
1I give you thanks, O Lord and King,
and praise you, O God my Savior.
I give thanks to your name,2for you have been my protector a ... View more

Lam 1-4

The Deserted City
1How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a ... View more

Ps 119

The Glories of God's Law
1Happy are those whose way is blameless,
who walk in the law of the Lord.2Happy are those who keep his decrees,
who seek him with their ... View more

Lam 4-5

The Punishment of Zion
1How the gold has grown dim,
how the pure gold is changed!
The sacred stones lie scattered
at the head of every street.
2The precious chi ... View more

Lam 3

God's Steadfast Love Endures
1I am one who has seen affliction
under the rod of God's! wrath;2he has driven and brought me
into darkness without any light;3agai ... View more

Prov 31:10-31

Ode to a Capable Wife
10A capable wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.11The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of ... View more

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